Grumbling among the Woodwinds

Lush notes from your violin resound through gilt-edged halls. Hushed audiences listen as you enthrall them with Beethoven or Prokofiev. Hundreds...

Lush notes from your violin resound through gilt-edged halls. Hushed audiences listen as you enthrall them with Beethoven or Prokofiev. Hundreds of admirers burst into applause at each concert's end. Musicians who play in major symphony orchestras--each of whom has beaten out perhaps 200 others in auditions--must surely love their jobs. And in contrast, those relegated to regional orchestras--including many of those 200 "others"--must languish in frustration, one steppingstone away from glory.

Not so, according to Josephine S. Pichanick, a doctoral candidate in the organizational behavior program jointly administered by Harvard Business School and the department of psychology. For a study of job satisfaction among professional musicians, Pichanick collected questionnaires from 66 musicians in major and regional symphony orchestras and interviewed 22 players in depth. The major-orchestra musicians studied earn a mean income of $85,000 a year, as compared to $15,000 for regional players. "I predicted that, because major players were so much better compensated and because so much more prestige was involved, they'd be more satisfied overall," Pichanick says.

Surprisingly, the results showed the opposite. Job satisfaction for players who win a seat in a major symphony orchestra was high early in their tenures, but fell steadily, gradually regressing to the mean. Regional players' satisfaction began lower, but grew over time. Prestige and good pay, Pichanick found, do not necessarily equal job satisfaction.

"Many major-orchestra players feel that they are musically stifled," she explains. "Their orchestras are strongly driven by boards of trustees who oversee large endowments. Serious money is on the line. There's little room for influence by the players." Management, she explains, caters to what's popular with audiences, not what's most meaningful to the orchestra.

Orchestra life in general can be grueling. You perform the same pieces year after year: "How many times can you record Beethoven's Fifth on a CD?" one player asked. Working with the same conductor for years can grow boring, and a few are famously domineering personalities. Performance pressure is intense: some musicians resort to beta-blocker medications to get through performances. There are repetitive strain injuries, like tendinitis in a violinist's wrist or arm. It's a night-and-weekend job, which kills your social life. And as one of 100 orchestral musicians, you're an anonymous cog who must usually forgo recognition for individual talent.

Because major-orchestra musicians start with higher expectations, they may become more deeply disillusioned over time. A player on the brink of retirement from one major orchestra told Pichanick, "It's a factory job with a little bit of art thrown in." Yet both major and regional players stay in their jobs; among the interviewees, average job tenure was 18 years. Pichanick says the number-one reason for leaving was death.

How do the musicians cope with their frustrations? Ironically, the key to regional players' relative contentment may be their part-time status. Most take second jobs to support themselves, as music teachers, computer programmers, bank tellers, insurance brokers. They have less time to improve their skills as musicians, but "they're exercising some of their other skills," Pichanick explains. Over time, they increasingly enjoy their orchestral work because they no longer need to find every kind of satisfaction in one job. Regional musicians are also more likely to put energy into pressing their union to improve pay, hours, and benefits; major players grumble but, aware of their high pay and status, don't act. Working to improve your job seems to add, not detract, from your sense of satisfaction with it. "You just keep working to make small gains," one regional player of 25 years' seniority said. "As the years go by, you get more involved."

Frustrated major-orchestra musicians look outside the symphony for musical satisfaction. They join small chamber groups. They perform as soloists for regional orchestras. They form quartets, where they can choose what music to perform, shine as individual musicians, and reconnect with their art. "We have these images of glamour and awards,"

Pichanick says, "but there are satisfactions to be found in both big and little."

~Barbara Beckwith


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